There are statistics about poverty, and I’ve heard them before. But in statistics there is room for stereotypes, for abstractions, and for apathy and disaffection. For someone like me, whose family has not been seriously affected by the recession, it’s easy to not see the people around me who are struggling. Even donating cans at a food drive for Thanksgiving or dropping off clothes at Goodwill keeps us removed from the people who need help.
But what if something made us see them? Real people. With stories. Many of whose lives were once as comfortable as ours. But somehow, the bottom fell out.
The Line, a documentary from producer Linda Midgett and social justice organization Sojourners, debuted online last month. In forty-five minutes, it follows four Americans who, for different reasons, have fallen below the federal poverty line. It shows us the new reality of American poverty: there are now more people living below the federal poverty line in suburban areas than there are in cities. Using a few statistics and a whole lot of real life stories behind them, The Line offers an affecting introduction to the many layers of poverty, its causes and effects.
As the film begins, the camera focuses on quiet suburbia and we hear a woman talking. Her voice is conversational, but her words are heavy: “The line. The place the people on the bottom are trying to get to, and the place the people on top are trying to keep from going below. They don’t want to look below it, either. They don’t want to see what’s down there.”
The first man to tell us his story is John, a single father who was laid off from his job as a banking executive in the suburbs of Chicago. His sincerity is clear, and we feel for him, because also clear is his embarrassment and shame. John makes his monthly visit to a local food pantry — something he at first couldn’t bring himself to do. We are immediately faced with intimacy as John explains what he has a hard time explaining to his own kids, whom he requested not be filmed. “You’re doing everything that every person says is the right thing to do,” he says, “the right steps to follow. But it’s not happening. And what if it doesn’t happen?” For John and for others who are struggling to keep themselves and their families going, the poverty line is a place where, for the first time, they have to ask for help. For the first time, their hope is shaken. John’s story shows viewers that poverty can happen to any of us.
Some people in The Line have grown up without hope, where generational poverty creates a culture of violence, like in Chicago’s west side. Some, like fishermen on the Gulf Coast, used to rely on a wealth of natural resources until environmental crises like hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill wiped out their livelihood. All of them are pressing forward. After the fourth American to tell his story, James, reaches a turning point and is hired at The King’s Kitchen restaurant and moves out of a homeless shelter into his own apartment, the documentary takes a positive turn. An uplifting, beat-driven song is the new backdrop. The singer, Joy Ike, reminds us “This is not the end/This is not the end of us/We’ll shine like the stars.” These stories inspire hope that, though it will be hard and it may be slow, we can change things for the better.
These people show us the help they couldn’t have gone on without, the help they still need, and the work they’re doing to fight their way above the line. The filmmakers hope it will create conversation about poverty not only in the context of charity and activism, but also in government and public policy. They encourage viewers to share the film, write to their government officials, and do what they can to actively help.
In a time when we’re so removed from our neighbors, it would be easy to remain unmoved and even oblivious. Watching The Line — seeing real people working through real hardship, seeing their faces and hearing their voices — forces us to see more than statistics. When we look below the line, we’ll see people we can identify with. People working hard. People who need help. Now it’s our turn to respond.
Watch The Line here.